Foam mock-ups of houses, large printed plans and sections of floorboards and moldings inhabit architect Jimmy Crisp’s headquarters in Millbrook, N.Y. Some of the house models congregated on a central table, and about 10 computers lined the walls, a few of them manned by architects who work with Mr. Crisp. The room was aflutter with a quiet bustle – the combined whir of computer fans, an air circulating unit labeled “IQ Air” and the shuffling of papers.
The office is the nerve center of Mr. Crisp’s far-reaching residential design firm, established 18 years ago. Mr. Crisp and his associates – he calls them collaborators – work in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, designing and overseeing the construction of new homes, accessory structures and renovations.
Plenty of architectural firms tread the same ground. What distinguishes the work of Mr. Crisp are those elements that are the hallmarks of structures possessing the type of magnetism to which sensitive human beings respond: a fidelity for the best of the past, an understanding of contemporary living, an appreciation of the finer things in life and an absolute symbiosis between structure and the site.
Crisp Architects began humbly. The bud that bloomed into the burgeoning high-end residential firm, one well-regarded enough to be written about in nationally-distributed shelter magazines was a small project Mr. Crisp undertook with a friend in the mid-1980s. Then working in New York City, he and his friend wanted a weekend place to share in the country, so they bought an abandoned schoolhouse near Millbrook. They reworked the place but retained its historic feel. The New York press noticed it, and suddenly Mr. Crisp had a big client list outside of the city. He eventually decided to decamp.
“I said, ‘What am I doing living in New York City and commuting to the country when I could live there?” Mr. Crisp remembered.
Moving out of the city represented a voyage for the architect, literally and symbolically. In leaving, he was beginning to work on his own – he had worked for other architects in the city – and he was retreating, in a sense, from the cutting-edge design he had learned in the city and earlier a Louisiana State University.
It was a move that was years in the making, dating at least to his interest in the work of A. Hays Town, an old-time Louisiana architect Mr. Crisp befriended in college. Mr. Town’s design was popular and very much evolved from traditional Southern architecture. It was also at odds with the contemporary approach espoused by Mr. Crisp’s professors.
“He did over 1,000 houses, and he didn’t start until he was 60,” Mr. Crisp said of Mr. Town. “I met him in his mid-70s, and I did physical labor on some of his houses. He was using old materials. Once I saw him rubbing a wood panel with steel wool, getting it to just the color he wanted, and I thought [that] if this guy could do it, I could do it. [Mr. Town] did a lot of work and people loved his work with a passion. There wasn’t the same passion in academia. I respect modern architects, but I wouldn’t want to live in their houses.”
As Mr. Town was to the Southern tradition, Mr. Crisp would like to be to the New England tradition. In many of his projects, which range from pool houses to full estates, Mr. Crisp uses old materials – brick and beams, for example – which impart an ineffable sense of antiquity.
In addition, the architect works in a somewhat traditional manner, beginning with pencil sketches that metamorphose gradually into detailed architectural plans drawn up with computer-aided design software, a technology Mr. Crisp hasn’t yet learned to use, though his associates are well-versed.
Very often we make floors from old re-sawed beams,” Mr. Crisp said. “That gives a house a warm feeling because it’s a 200 year old material. Some clients want old looking, others want a more contemporary feeling but with details that give you the feeling that someone thought about the details.”
The attitude Mr. Crisp said he takes toward clients is generally of accommodation. “We don’t do stuff that says, ‘An architect did this. Look at me,'” he said. What is appropriate or desirable to his clients takes precedence over what is bound to attract attention. This attitude is evident in houses, additions, kitchen makeovers, barn conversions, artist’s studios and other buildings he has designed, none of which appear to be daring architectural experiments, but all of which seem eminently livable.
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Last Updated: October 15, 2020
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